Set and Horus (Part Two)

Horus in the form of a falcon


 Horus is one of the most important gods in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon. When dead, a pharaoh is identified with Osiris, when alive the pharaoh is identified with Horus, the falcon-headed son of Osiris. Horus is also one of the oldest gods, and though it is not certain when the Egyptians began to worship him, it is belived that the falcons depicted on the Narmer Palette (31st century B.C.) were a depiction of him. Originally Horus was associated with the sky, but in the ‘Pyramid Texts’ he was already described as the sun-god, and in the New KIngdom it was believed that the great sphinx of Giza was actually a statue of Horus. However, today he is best known as the son of Isis and Osiris, and the rightful heir to the throne of Egypt. He was born in the Delta, where Isis hid him from his uncle Seth until he was old enough to claim his throne. The origin of this myth is unknown and it is entirely possible that originally it was about a different god that was later fused with Horus (which shows that there are many gods and goddesses that we don’t even know about). 

Horus was originally depicted as a falcon, sometimes together with the Set-animal indicating the strong association that existed between the two, though he could also be depicted as a falcon-headed crocodile. As the son of Isis and Osiris, Horus is depicted as a man-child or as a human  adult, though many times he is depicted as a man with the head of a falcon. There are many cult sites that were associated with Horus, and more often than not, he was worshiped along with other gods and goddesses. In Southern Egypt, for example, he was worshiped along with his wife Hathor and their son Harsomptus (obviously here Horus was not the Horus from the Isis and Osiris myths). 

 Horus was closely linked to the kingship and this was mostly because of the stories and legends of how he succeeded after a long time to get the throne back from his uncle Seth. These stories involved trials. Yes, trials, just like nowadays, with Horus and his mother as the plaintiffs and Seth as the defendant, the judge was Ra (in one form or another) and the jury were the other gods and goddesses. Most of them had had enough of this and didn’t care who got the throne. Of course both sides used trickery in order to try to get the throne, though only Seth was shown as the villan because he used trickery in order to remain the king. Eventually Isis succeeded in convincing Ra and the others that the throne was Horus’s by right of birth and Horus was finally acknowledged as the king of Egypt. Seth was sent into the Netherworld where his new job was to protect the boat of Ra from his worst enemy, Apophis. 

Horus can travel both Egypt and the Netherworld and is shown on numerous occasions helping the deceased find their way to the ‘Field of Reeds’, as is depicted in the picture below. 

Horus leading the scribe Ani in the Netherworld (from the Book of the Dead, 19th Dynasty)


Set and Horus (Part One)

Set and Horus have been fighting one another from pretty much the beginning. It is supposed that Horus was the head god of Upper Egypt and that Set was the head god of Lower Egypt. When the king of Upper Egypt decided to unite the two Egypts into one under his own rule, this decision manifested itself into the well-known mythological struggle between the two brothers Set and Horus. Later, with the growing of the cult of Osiris, the roles changed a little and it became a tale of deceit, fratricide and revenge, and Horus became Set’s nephew.

The depiction of Set as an unknown cannine animal

As with many of the other gods, Set’s origins are obscure and not much is known of the earlier cult that worshiped him. It would appear that Seth began as a desert deity who represented the forces of disturbance and confusion in the world. Archaeological evidence indicate that he was a known deity already from the Naqada I period (c. 4000 – 3500 B.C.) . During the Second Dynasty (c. 2890 – 2686 B.C.), the figure of Set appears next to the hieroglyph of the pharaoh Peribsen along with the figure of Horus, indicating an equality at the time between the two gods. During the Old Kingdom (c. 2650 – 2134 B.C.) Set had lost some of his importance though he appears many times in the ‘Pyramid Texts’, and by the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040 – 1640 B.C.)  his status as the defender of Ra from the snake deity Apophis and as the brother of Osiris, has already been established. During the Hyksos period (c. 1640 – 1550 B.C.) Set was identified by the Shepard Kings with their god Baal, however this association saw to Set’s  demise from the Twentieth Dynasty (c.1186 – 1069 B.C. ) . From the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty (c. 760 – 656 B.C.), the importance of Set had all but died out.

Set as he is depcted from the New Kingdom

Set had a dual character, he was known as the personification of violence and chaos, thus opposing Maat, the goddess of order, yet, he was also the god of cunning and great strength, qualities that can also be used for good. Set was originally described as an unknown canine animal, with a curved head, tall square-topped ears, and erect arrow-like tail. The animal in earliest depictions is shown standing, while later it is shown seated or crouching. There are theories that such an animal had once existed in the desert dunes of Egypt but have since become extinct. During the New Kingdom, Set is depicted as a man with the head of this canine animal. Set had cult centres throughout Egypt, but his most centred place of worship was located in Upper Egypt.

Isis and Horus the Child

Isis holding Horus the Child

The name Horus the Child is given to a number of divine male infants, the most famous of which is the son of Isis and Osiris. Horus the Child is usually depicted as a child sitting on a papyrus plant and sucking a thumb. He is sometimes known as ‘Horus hidden behind the papyrus’ (Har-hery-wadj) as an indication to his origin. The most famous form of Horus the Child is seeing him seated on his mother’s lap, suckling her breast. There are two versions to the story of Horus’s birth, the first is from the ‘Coffin Texts’, the second is from the stela known as the ‘Magical Stela’ that is currently located in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The first version gives a short account of how Isis turns to the other gods and asks for their protection over her while she is pregnant with Horus. When Horus is born, he immediately proclaims himself his father’s heir and that he will take revenge against those who have wronged his family.

The second version gives a more detailed account to what happened after Horus was born, and the dangers he and his mother had to face. After Isis gave birth to Horus the Child, she hid him among the papyrus in the Delta from the evil of his uncle Seth, while everyday she left to find food to feed them both. She knew that it was Horus’s destiny to revenge his father’s death. One day, whilst Isis was away looking for food, Seth discovered the whereabouts of Horus the child. Seth disguised himself as a snake and bit the child. Isis came back and found her child suffering, picking him up, she started wandering around the Delta asking for help from the people there. Though they were sympathetic to her plight, none could help her, until one women suggested to Isis to check if Horus was poisoned, and if so, to appeal to the sun-god Ra to help heal him. She then appealed to Ra to stop the sun-boat and come help cure Horus was healed, which he did. Isis, joyful that Horus was now safe, continued to raise him in the Delta area until he was old enough to face his uncle.


Osiris and Isis

The origins of Osiris’s myth are lost in the past therefore it is unknown when his worship began, but there are archaeological evidence to his cult in Abydos during the First Dynasty. It is thought that Osiris was originally a fertility god, or water god (associated with the Nile’s inundation), and according to Lewis Spence, Osiris originally came from Africa. With time, Osiris and his cult gained popularity swiftly and soon he assimilated many other gods and took on their characteristics and attributes. It is not known when it happened, but at some point Osiris became the God of the dead, ruling in the Underworld. It is before him that the deceased had his heart weighed against the feather of Maat (the goddess of order). Osiris is usually depicted as a human male wrapped up as a mummy, his face can be either white, or black to symbolize the muds of the Nile, or green to symbolize fertility. He is depicted either standing or stiffly sitting down, in both instances, his legs are bound together and his hands are protruding from beneath the wrappings to hold the crock and flail (symbols of the pharaoh), his chief attributes.

Osiris as depicted on the walls of Horemheb's tomb from the 18th Dynasty (c. 14th century B.C.)

Osiris is first mentioned by name in the ‘Pyramid Texts’ where his importance is evident because his name is one of the three that are mentioned most frequently in the whole document. However, it is not known when the story of Osiris was completed, or how much of it originated from other stories of deities long gone Most of what we know derive from two main sources, the first is from the ‘Book of the Dead’, and the second was written during the Greco-Roman period by the Greek historian Plutarch in his work ‘De Iside et Osiride’.

According to both sources Osiris, or Us-Ir, is the first-born son of the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb, and he was chosen to rule over the land because he was found worthy of this. He ruled the land well and was remembered as a great and wise pharaoh, and Egypt flourished under his rule. He not only brought order and law (maat) in Egypt, but he also brought his order to the barbarians in the lands surrounding Egypt. Supposedly, the barbarians worshiped the ground he stood on.

Osiris had three more siblings that were born after him, the first two were the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, and the youngest was his brother Seth. Osiris was married to his sister Isis, while Seth was married to Nephthys. (This is where the Egyptian tradition of the pharaohs marrying their sisters originate from). Unlike Osiris, Seth was the bringer of destruction, confusion and disorder, and he was Osiris’s worst enemy because he wanted his throne. According to both versions, Seth killed Osiris and usurped his throne, however, the version in Plutarch’s account is fuller and I shall use it to relay Osiris’s story here.

After Osiris finally returned from his glorious journeys beyond the land of Egypt, Seth and seventy-two conspirators decided to do away with him. In order to execute this, Seth invited Osiris to a feast, a glorious feast, with the finest food and the most beautiful and exotic dancers. After a time, when Osiris was fully enjoying his brother’s hospitality, Seth pulled out a chest, a beautiful chest made of cedar wood, richly fashioned and adorned that caught the eye of Osiris. The name of the game was whoever could fit perfectly into the chest could keep it as a gift. One by one, the other guests tried to fit in, but one was too tall, the next was too short, one was too fat, one too thin, until finally Osiris decided to try his luck, and to his delight, he was the perfect match (because Seth took his measurements secretly before having this chest made). Having caught Osiris in the chest, Seth slammed the lid shut and nailed it, making sure that Osiris could not get out, and thus the great king died. After they made sure of Osiris’s death, Seth and the other conspirators threw the chest into the Nile.

The chest swept towards the sea and eventually reached the shores of Phoenicia, near Gebal (known overwise as the Greek Byblos), where it stuck, and a mighty tree grew around it. The tree became famous for its might, beauty and sweet scent, though no one knew that at its core lay the chest containing the body of the mighty king Osiris. In time, the king of Gebal decided to cut down the tree and make out of it a pillar to place in his palace.